Monday, April 4, 2016

When New Embraces Old: Part 1, the Journey

Breezeway of Knox College
When I first came to the University of Toronto to teach, I felt an abiding sense of “home” braced with the thrill of adventure. It was like “falling in love.” Really.

To fall in love is like coming home, after all. And what is “home” but a tapestry of splendid memories whose textures weave us into who we presently are. It’s been three years since I came to UofT and I still feel that glowing thrill every time I walk through campus. Whether it’s past a century-old stone building, beneath a canopied archway of chestnuts, into a well-treed enclave, or through a high-ceilinged glass building; I am both home and on an adventure.

UofT is a place of learning—erudite, splendid, yet humble—beautifully epitomizing “new embracing old”. When new embraces old, we get magic. Wizard-magic. Harry Potter kind of magic. The kind of magic that only someone who is open, faithful, and confident can wield. This is ancient magic. The magic that lurks like Reznikoff’s ghost in the ancient halls of University College, or the magic currently wielded at 1 Spadina. A magic borne of wisdom, lore, and story.
Courtyard behind University College

All good stories understand and appreciate their origins. Good story builds on tradition toward something new and evolutionary. To journey forward, one must acknowledge the past. Ultimately, as Joseph Campbell said, that journey is a journey “home”. 

UofT was founded 175 years ago as King’s College at the head of King’s circle. It was the first institution of higher learning in the colony of what was then Upper Canada. King’s College became the University of Toronto in 1849, and has steadily grown to include two more campuses (one in Scarborough and another in Mississauga), 9,000 faculty and staff and more than 60,000 graduate and undergraduate students. UofT has spawned major research achievements such as the discovery of insulin, the creation of the first electronic heart pacemaker, the single lung transplant and the discovery of the gene responsible for the most severe form of Alzheimer's disease. Recent advances include the discovery of the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis, cloning of the T-cell gene, and the world's first nerve transplant. During the research for my book Water Is… I continually ran across major achievements by UofT researchers in water and water-related science: from quantum entanglement in photosynthesis to billion-year water found in deep Canadian mine shafts. They are, of course, referred to in my book.

Diabolos and Reznikoff of University College
The St. George campus of UofT lies embedded in the city of Toronto, steps away from the upscale shopping district of Yonge and Bloor and not much farther from the bustle of the financial district on King and Bay. It’s a bracing walk to Union Station, where every moving vehicle ends up at some time. UofT sprawls like an amoeba of neutrinos through the parliament buildings of University Avenue, making subtle changes here and there. Recreating the fabric of the cityscape in muonic subtleties.

This isn’t a typical century-old university campus, isolated from its city surroundings by an enclave of heritage buildings within an ornate campus of landscaped gardens and paths. UofT certainly has some of that. But the UofT downtown campus also sprawls dozens of blocks in all directions; embedding itself in the city with a blend of century-old buildings and avant-garde modern chic. It’s not so much re-inventing itself at every turn as morphing and co-evolving with the city. Old and new fold into one another, resembling symmetrical folds of metamorphic rock along a fault line. Like the entangled embrace of a Henry Moore sculpture.

I went on walkabout recently, after the last snows receded and gave way to the warm and restless winds of spring. The day blustered as I pulled up the collar of my spring coat and headed south from the St. George subway station. The sun beamed with the promise of hot summer days as the churlish wind stirred up leaves and debris into mini tornadoes. Winter’s detritus tracked a dizzy path, like whirling dervishes in tune with a seasonal dance.

I took my usual route south on St. George, toward Galbraith and Bahen buildings, where I teach, and soon found several examples of “new meets old”.

Max Gluskin House
Max Gluskin House: UofT’s economics department recently expanded its home by connecting the department’s original Victorian and Georgian Revival buildings with a glass-enclosed hallway and a modern three-story addition called Max Gluskin House. The expansion unifies three heritage buildings with a contemporary glass building that creates an open connection. Its rust-coloured Corten steel harmonizes with the historic brick and, integrated with landscape features, provide an improved street presence. 

Max Gluskin House includes a large undergraduate common room that faces into a courtyard, offices and research space for graduate students and faculty, rooms for TAs to meet with students, and expanded computer facilities. The project beautifully preserves and restores the beauty of the formal portions of the Victorian house, built in 1889 for William Crowther, and major portions of the Georgian building, completed in 1961. Ira Gluskin, who graduated from UofT’s commerce and finance program in 1964, provided the lead gift for the renovation. The facility is named in honour of his father, Max, who graduated from the same program in 1936.The renovation won second place in the commercial and institutional category of Toronto’s 2009 PUG Awards, the people’s choice awards in architecture.

John Downey House embraced by Rotman
Rotman School of Management & John Downey House: When the Rotman School of Management needed to accommodate an ever-growing programming, student body, and faculty, it expanded 10-stories up right around John Downey House. Built in 1889, John Downey House typifies the Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne Revival styles; called the Annex Style, it’s a blend of American and British architectural influences often associated with the wealthy. 

The building emphasizes elaborate masonry and incorporates a prominent gable, woodwork and dormers. The Canadian School for Missions enlarged the building in 1929 with a two-storey addition in the Collegiate Gothic style. With the lofty backdrop of the Rotman Centre looming like a sentinel behind it, John Downey House sits like a russet island nested comfortably in a modern sea of cerulean glass. The centre itself, which I entered through an unassuming glass door, opens Tardis-like into an expansive open atrium with comfortable lounge and fireplace, study areas and stairways snaking up into ever higher levels

Atrium of Bahen with Koffler outer wall
Bahen & Koffler Buildings: The Bahen Centre for Information Technology was designed and built in 2002 to facilitate cross-disciplinary teaching and research for UofT’s Faculty of Arts and Science and the Faculty of Engineering. Named after John Bahen, president of the Peter Kiewit and Sons building company, it was based on the concept of a high-tech loft space, wrapping to the south and west around the 1909 Koffler Student Centre and to the north around 1878 Chadwick House. 

The vaulting skylit arcade uses the Koffler Centre’s older outer wall as its south wall to provide pedestrian connections through the building; at its centre, a circular stair surrounds a glass tower of shared meeting rooms for eight levels. 

Bahen’s north wing embraces Chadwick House, a
Chadwick House meets Bahen
Victorian house in a small courtyard opening off the street. The translucent glass of Bahen’s pavilion forms a contrasting backdrop to the connected Victorian building—with one of the best displays of dichromatic brickwork.
The January 2003 issue of Canadian Architect magazine dubbed the Bahen Centre as "a complex interweaving of urbanity, public space and sustainability." It won the Ontario Association of Architects Award and City of Toronto Architecture and Urban Design Award, both in 2003. It also won a Bronze in the Environmental Category of the National Post Design Exchange Award.

Faculty Club lounge
UofT Faculty Club: Every journey requires repast—a place to relax, eat and drink—and my feet naturally directed me to one of my new favourite haunts: the UofT Faculty Club. Located close to the hub of the campus, on Wilcox Street just east of Spadina, the club is open to members who include faculty, staff, graduate alumni and their guests. I entered the 1896 heritage building, built in a Georgian Revival-style, and passed the elegant first floor lounge to the pub below. The pub welcomed me with excellent food, drink and a relaxing ambience. Bathed in rich tones of wood and comfortable chairs and warmed by a cozy fireplace, it reminded me of a Dorset pub I’d visited years ago; full of colourful characters and a well-stocked bar. I felt both at home and like a traveler. Like I’d walked into history with modern comfort. I ordered the beet salad from my friendly waitress; it provided a refreshing and attractive light meal for a mid-day traveller.

What better place to end my journey of “new embracing old” than in a place where “old embraces new.”

More in Part 2.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Evolution, Digital Immortality and "Freenet"

Steve Stanton’s fourth science fiction book Freenet explores humanity in the far future after we have created the “Macpherson Doorway” through folded space-time, and vaulted ourselves with the blink of an eye into a galaxy far far away and 12 million years into the future. No traffic back through the doorway is permitted since a quarantine was placed some dozen years ago to prevent any unwanted DNA from sneaking through from Earth to “New Jerusalem”.

As the back book jacket reveals, Freenet is a novel about the “power of [free] information…in a post-digital age.” The book explores what digital immortality means, when “consciousness has been digitized and cybersouls uploaded to a near-omniscient data-matrix.” This is a world where information “is currency and the truth belongs to whoever has the greatest bandwidth.”

Stanton shared with me that he was inspired to write the novel “from the simple observation of watching a woman lose her cellphone. Young people today are so tied to technology that they freak out when the strings are cut. In the future when life experience is delivered directly to the brain by wi-fi, the personal loss will be catastrophic.”

Told in three parts, the book begins with Simara Ying—a plugged-in V-net jockey and spacer—about to crash-land on the desert planet Bali. Her rescuer, a naïve—almost too nice to be true—native, Zen Valda, introduces her to his cave-dwelling culture with no social network support. The persistent electromagnetic storms of Bali interfere with digital communication and wipe all data. Like a baby removed from her comfortable womb, Simara survives panic attacks and heavy withdrawal chiefly because she is bombarded so heavily with Bali experiences that demand her attention. Lost without the support of her V-net—a comforting web of infinite communication and information—Simara struggles with Bali’s foreign ways. At every turn, she stumbles across some custom or taboo, forced to rely on her own wits; making the kind of mistakes she’s not used to making. More than a simple communication/information tool, the V-net embraces Simara with confidence. Without it, she fears she may go insane.
Canadian cover
Intrigue arrives on Bali and chases Simara with a bounty on her head for murder. Zen demonstrates a simple faith in her innocence and helps her escape. Zen accepts a cochlear installation to connect him to the V-net, thinking it will help him better communicate with Simara, who—already somewhat distant—is even more so now that she has reunited with the V-net.  The V-net instead overwhelms him with a surging sea of irrelevant chatter and information, which threatens to drive him insane. Struggling with chaotic information overload, he remains with Simara, even after she estranges herself from him and is captured for murder. They escape and survive an arranged “accident” by literally jumping into space from an abandoned troopship about to crash.

The story deepens into nuanced commentary in the last third of the book when Roni Hendrik, an energetic V-net anchorman of the Daily Buzz, pokes into the intrigue surrounding Simara Ying. He discovers that she is biogenic, an omnidroid—bioengineered from human DNA—and likely smuggled from Earth.

Omnidroids share a major cerebral augmentation that includes unlimited access to the V-net, higher intelligence and an unknown possibility of enhancements, including pre-cognition and telepathy across vast distances. Created as effective firewalls and filters, omnidroids streamline all V-net data for users across the galaxy. “Omnidroids [are] born into zero-day digital space and live in a fantasyland far beyond the mortal sphere of intelligence,” Henrik reflects, sensing a deeper story than a simple murder conspiracy. “Physical experience and bodily sensation [are] only tiny fragments of their transcendent existence, mundane accessories to digital infinity. In time,” Henrik concludes, “life itself might become a vestigial appendage.”

Nina holding a pre-release copy of Freenet
Hendrik, a humanist and closet idealist, pieces together connections with Neurozonics a New Jerusalem private corporation, responsible for the creation of biogenic humans. With holdings in a vast range of areas and an streaming amoeba of interests, Neurozonics is “a grinning spider on a translucent web of intrigue.” One discovery leads Henrik to more. He learns that the omnidroid community, to which Simara belongs, acts and communicates like a hive-mind, guided by a collective voice called “Mothership”. Other omnidroids have been targeted for elimination—and killed. Hell-bent on getting answers, Henrik confronts the owner of Neurozonics, Colin Macpherson—the same Macpherson who created the wormhole. Macpherson was uploaded earlier and runs his empire from digital space, part of the consortium of eternal intellect. 

Henrik’s meeting with Colin8 (the seventh clone of the original Colin Macpherson) runs like a “Neo-Architect” lecture in which the truth behind the omnidroids deaths is revealed. It’s not what you might think. Macpherson divulges his vision, which includes the reason for omnidroids’ communication abilities and the role of the Neurozonic brain. The ultimate meaning and use of the omnidroid freenet ties to a greater destiny that redefines what it is to be human and subverts the history of our primordial origins.
"Ma, can you read the part where the cat
omnidroid takes over the world?"
The story flows seamlessly from one perspective to another with crisp page-turning narrative, action and intrigue. Stanton trades some richness of character for a page-turning plot and clever dialogue. If there is a weakness in the narrative for me, it lies with Simara, the arcane omnidroid, who remains mysterious—from her introduction aboard her ship about to crash land, to the limited revelations of her character during her interactions with Zen, both in her POV and in his. Considering her unique characteristics and experiences as an omnidroid, I would have enjoyed more insight to her unique outlook and perspective, especially when faced with no social network—perhaps the most frightening experience for an omnidroid: to be disconnected from the hive. On the other hand, Zen Valda as the simple Bali boy on an insane rollercoaster ride is painted with a sensitive and graceful hand. Stanton also skillfully portrays his news team, Roni and Gladyz, with finesse and subtly clever notes. The dialogue and overall interactions between them is some of the most enjoyable of the novel.

Ultimately, Stanton’s Freenet flows like a fresh turbulent river, scouring and building up sediment then meandering like an oxbow into areas that surprise. He lulls you into expectation, based on your own vision of the digital world, then—like a bubble bursting—releases a quantum paradox of wormhole possibility.

Freenet will be available in Canada on April 1 and in USA on April 12. Preorders are open on Amazon in both countries.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2016—Year of the Cat?

 Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

Leslie Wu of Forbes Magazine beat my tagline today in wishing you a Happy New Year: Says Wu: “Although we’ll be ringing in the year of the fire monkey for Chinese New Year in February, it could be said that 2016 will be the year of the cat…Cat cafes are springing up across Canada, where those lacking feline companionship can reserve time with these most reserved of creatures. From Vancouver to Montreal, the stressed, lonely or just plain cat deprived can cuddle their woes away with adoptable new friends (in partnership with the local SPCA or Humane Society). Although cat cafes have been popping up globally, Canada’s entry into the market has been relatively recent.”
The domestic cat hasn’t always been in this position in society. In fact, the cat has had a complicated history with humanity since it first stepped into some Natufian’s rice granary and slammed its paw on a mouse. It hasn’t been easy for Felis silvestris sybica…
From Bastet to a witch’s familiar… from the Chesire Cat to Schrödinger’s Cat … from Japan’s Beckoning Cat to Hello Kitty … from Aristophanes’ “the cat did it” to That Darn Cat’s wily DC … from Pokemon’s Meowth to A Cat in Paris … from Puss in Boots and Tom Kitten to Grumpy Cat … Humanity has deified, vilified, coddled and persecuted the domestic cat. Both icon and sacrifice, the domestic cat has lived in paradox alongside humanity for centuries. Perhaps because it is itself a paradox.
When I observe my cat friend, furled out languidly, yet poised to leap, I recognize the unfettered wildcat deep in his soul. I recognize the anima mundi in his reflective eyes. The domestic cat embraces paradox: relaxed and alert; fierce and calm; tame and savage; mysterious and comforting. He embodies yin and yang.
The story of the domestic house cat’s evolving journey is subtle, complex and rife with contradiction. The domestic cat has evolved from wild hunter to opportunist predator and as partner alongside humanity as companion and symbol.
It began about 11 million years ago when the Pseudaelurus, a medium-sized catlike animal, roamed the steppes of central Asia. Although it went extinct in Asia, receding sea levels permitted the Pseudaelurus to migrate across what is now the Red Sea into Africa, where it gave rise to the caracal and the serval. The Pseudaelurus also crossed the Bering land bridge into North America and gave rise to the lynx, bobcat and puma. Isolated migrants to South America created the ocelot and Geoffroy’s cat. The big cats—lions, tigers, jaquars and leopards—evolved in Asia then spread to other parts of the world.

John Bradshaw, author of “Cat Sense”, writes that today’s domestic cat evolved some 8 million years ago in North America then migrated into Asia about 2 million years later. About 3 million years ago, they evolved into the species we know today, including the wildcat, the jungle cat and the sand cat—whose feet pads are covered in thick fur to protect them from the hot sand.
The first signs of integration with human communities occurred some 10,000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Widely regarded as the inventors of agriculture, the Natufians of 11,000 to 8,000 BCE inhabited the once highly productive Fertile Crescent that encompassed what is now known as Israel-Palestine, Jordan, southwestern Syria and southern Lebanon. Initially hunter-gatherers, the Natufians
A Cat in Paris
started growing crops such as wild cereals. When the climate changed perceptibly around 10,000 BCE, they adopted intensive farming practices that required extensive storage. Attracted to the bountiful harvested grain, the house mouse moved in. And right behind it came the small wildcat. As agriculture spread, so did the “domesticated” wildcat, exploiting a plentiful food source.
Although several wildcats were associated with humanity, such as the fishing cat (Felis viverrina), the manul, and jaguarondi; the Arabian wildcat, Felis silvestris sybica, was identified through DNA testing as the “mother” cat of the domesticated cat we know today. Once so plentiful that it was considered a pest and hunted for food, this wildcat can still be found in remote areas of Europe, Africa, central and western Asia (where it may have first evolved). Felis silvestris comprises four subspecies: sylvestris (in Europe), lybica (Arabia), cafra (southern Africa), and ornata (Indian desert).
A cat was found buried alongside a human in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus from around 7,500 BCE. No burials of cats were recorded from the Middle East until thousands of years later. Was this an anomaly? Bradshaw thinks so: “a very special human and his prized tame wildcat.” In middle Egypt some 6,500 years ago a craftsman was buried with a gazelle (probably placed there for food in the afterlife) and a cat. Perhaps a pet? In Abydos, a tomb dating about 4,000 years ago, was uncovered that contained seventeen cat skeletons accompanied by seventeen pots—of milk? Egyptians began to paint and carve pet cats around then. A set of hieroglyphs—called “miw”—were created just for the domestic cat. Miw was adopted as a name for girls, suggesting how integrated the domestic cat had become in Egyptian society. Cats were depicted sitting in baskets or under a person’s chair (usually a female), and sometimes with a fish.
Miss Pussy Cat's Tea Party
Egypt doted on cats and worshipped them as god-animals. Bradshaw writes that the sun god, Ra, was occasionally depicted with the head of a cat and referred to as “Miuty.” Cat deities include: Pakhet, a lioness deity; and Sekhmet. Bastet was most associated with the domestic cat. She was the keeper of hearth and home, protector of women’s secrets, guardian against evil spirits and disease, and the goddess of cats. Bastet was commonly depicted as a woman with a lion’s head and carrying a serpent on her forehead. Later versions of Bastet more closely resembled a domestic cat as she became associated more with playfulness, fertility, motherhood, and female sexuality. Bastet or Bast was often associated with Isis (Ba-Ast translates to “soul of Isis”) and cats commonly found refuge in the temples of Isis. Fierceness and calm describes the goddess Isis as well as the cat. One theory of domestic cat distribution suggests that they followed the spread of temples of Isis. It was illegal to harm an Egyptian cat or to take it out of Egypt.
Tom Kitten
Joshua J. Mark, professor of philosophy at Marist College, New York, recounts how the Egyptian’s devotion to the cat was exploited by the Persians during the Battle of Pelusium (525 BCE) in which Cambyses II of Persia defeated the forces of the Egyptian Pharoah Psametik III to conquer Egypt. “Knowing of the Egyptian’s love for cats,” writes Mark, “Cambyses had his men round up various animals, cats chiefly among them, and drive the animals before the invading forces toward the fortified city of Pelusium on the Nile. The Persian soldiers painted images of cats on their shields, and may have held cats in their arms, as they marched behind the wall of animals. The Egyptians, reluctant to defend themselves for fear of harming the cats (and perhaps incurring the death penalty should they kill one), and demoralized at seeing the image of Bastet on the enemy’s shields, surrendered the city and let Egypt fall to the Persians.”
Van Gogh cat by Susan Herbert
The Egyptians are also responsible for the name “cat”, which comes from the North African word for the animal, quattah. Most Europeans use variations on this word: French, chat; Swedish, katt; German, katze; Italian, gatto; Spanish, gato. The colloquial word for a cat, “puss” or “pussy”, is also associated with Egypt in that it derives from the word Pasht, another name for Bastet.
The Indian cat goddess, Sastht, was greatly revered much in the same way as Bastet.
According to Mark, a Persian tale claims that the cat was created magically: “The great Persian hero Rustum, out on campaign, one night saved a magician from a band of thieves. Rustum offered the older man the hospitality of his tent and, as they sat outside under the stars, enjoying the warmth of a fire, the magician asked Rustum what he wished for as a gift in repayment for saving the man’s life. Rustum told him that there was nothing he desired since everything he could want, he already had before him in the warmth and comfort of the fire, the scent of the smoke and the beauty of
Van Gogh cat "after" by Susan Herbert
the stars overhead. The magician then took a handful of smoke, added flame, and brought down two of the brightest stars, kneading them together in his hands and blowing on them. When he opened his hands toward Rustum, the warrior saw a small, smoke-grey kitten with eyes bright as the stars and a tiny tongue, which darted like the tip of flame. In this way, the first Persian cat came to be created as a token of gratitude to Rustum. The prophet Muhammed was also very fond of cats. According to legend, the `M’ design on the forehead of the tabby cat was made when the prophet blessed his favourite cat by placing his hand on its head.”
Cats are thought to have been brought to Europe by Phoenician traders who smuggled them out of Egypt. By about 2,400 years ago, domestic cats became popular in other parts of the world such as Greece and Italy. Paintings typically showed cats unleashed and relaxing in the presence of people. They also appeared on gravestones, obviously as the pets of the people buried there. Greeks called them aielouros or “waving tail.” The same occurred in Rome, where cats typically appeared with women (men more commonly appeared with a dog). Felicula (little kitten) became a common name for girls.
As in Egypt, the domesticated cat became associated with goddesses in Greece and Italy, particularly Artemis or Diana. Ovid’s tale of mythical war between gods and giants, recounts how Diana escaped to Egypt and changed into a cat to escape capture. The cat was associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. In the myth, Hera, enraged by the behaviour of a maidservant, transformed her into a cat and sent her to the underworld to serve Hecate.
Freya and chariot cats
In early Europe cats were not yet persecuted. Norse mythology depicted feral cats pulling the chariot of Freya, the goddess of fertile life and Nature. In Ireland and Scotland cats were deemed magical—in a good way.
The Pheonician traders may also have introduced to the rest of Europe the Greek association of the cat with Hecate. The association of cats with darkness, transformation, the underworld and witchcraft—and paganism in general—would lead to their persecution in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Negative consequences of deification occurred both in Egypt and in Greece: in the form of cat sacrifice (and mummification). The ancient Celtic tradition of burying or killing cats to bring good luck also spread across Europe. European cities celebrated a Festival of Cats in which cats were thrown into a sac and suspended over a fire; their screams supposedly warded off evil spirits. In Ypres during Kattenstoet, cats were thrown from the top of a tower to save the town. The last time a live cat was thrown off the bell tower at Ypres, Belgium was as recent as 1817. The cat festival still occurs in Ypres using plush cats and a mock witch burning.
As the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages and Christianity established itself in Europe
Katentoet 2015 in Ypres, Belgium
in the 12th and 13th centuries, cats suffered from their affiliation with pagan beliefs, which were considered cults and connected with Satan. The Catholic Church tried to extirpate domestic cats in continental Europe. On June 13th of 1233, Pope Gregory published his Vox in Rama wherein cats—particularly black cats—were demonized. Millions were tortured and killed, along with their female owners, who were considered witches. Some historians argue—though this has been disputed—that the aggressive killing of cats allowed the urban rodent and associated flea populations to thrive, which brought in the Bubonic Plague of the 1300s. Although also susceptible to the plague, enough cats must have survived both plague and human abuse to enjoy a better day.
Elsewhere, the cats faired better. Bradshaw writes of the Sultan Baibars, ruler of Egypt and Syria, who founded the first sanctuary for homeless cats in Cairo in 1280.
Cat lounging on a park bench
Today, in North America and Europe and other parts of the world, the domestic and feral cat seem to enjoy a renaissance existence in which they are generally treated well or at least left alone.
Sushi cat

In Japan, a cat may find itself doted on to the point of “torture”. “Hello Kitty, arguably Japan’s most famous export, is only the tip of the iceberg,” wrote La Carmina in her blog post of 2013. “Take a walk around Tokyo, and you’ll see cat faces on every product imaginable...” from bowler hats with pointy ears, kitty petting zoos and Chesire cat pizza. Japanese folklore give cats a protective power that symbolize good fortune.

Marks writes about Japan’s “Beckoning Cat” (the maneki neko figure of the cat with one
Maneki neko
raised paw), which represents the goddess of mercy. According to legend, a cat sitting outside of the temple of Gotoku-ji raised her paw to acknowledge the emperor who was passing by. Attracted by the cat’s gesture, the emperor entered the temple just as lightning struck the very spot where he had been standing; the cat had saved his life and was accorded great honours. The Beckoning Cat image is thought to bring good luck when given as a gift and remains a very popular present in Japan. Several islands off Japan have been called “Cat Island”. On
Tashirojima Island in Ishinomaki City, cats come to welcome the boats at the port. Many wait patiently around the fishing port for fishermen to return. Neko-jinja located in the central area of the island enshrines a “cat god” in hope of a good catch and safety of the fishermen. Aoshima Island in the Shikoku area is also known as “Cat Island”. The catch-phrase of this island is “15 residents and 100 cats.”

Cat Island, Japan
In Toronto, where I presently live, TOT the Cat Café, a coffee house, lounge and place to see and play with cats, has opened in November 2015 on College Street. The café has a lounge where patrons may interact with up to ten cats from the Toronto Humane Society (who are obviously up for adoption!). Friends and business partners, Kenneth Chai and Scott Tan are the cat fans behind the new café. The duo quit their jobs in Saskatoon and moved to Toronto, investing all their own money to realize their vision — a place that would offer both lattes and friendly felines. TOT is the first cat café in Toronto but not in Canada. There are several in Quebec, including Le Café Des Chats in Montreal (opened in 2014) and one in Chelsea, Quebec (Siberian Cat Café in late 2015) and Vancouver’s Catfé on West Pender, which opened in mid-December of 2015. Toronto’s Kitty Cat Café—self-professed “Purr Therapy and Coffee Lounge” in addition to pet adoption—will open soon.
Cat sleeping in a pot

On the West Coast cat cafés exist in Portland, Oregon, San José, California, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The idea was born in Taiwan in 1998, and spread to Japan, where it's estimated there are now nearly 150 cat cafés, and Europe (e.g., Vienna).


Bradshaw, John. 2013. “Cat Sense”. Basic Books, New York, NY. 307pp.
Mark, Joshua J. 2012. “Cats in the Ancient World”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia, 17 November, 2012. Online:
Wu, Leslie. 2016. "Cat Cafes Prowl Across Canada". Forbes Magazine. Online: